In this article, I’m going to go over some pros and cons of having your first look at San Francisco City Hall specifically. First of all, if you’re not sold on the idea of a pre-ceremony ‘first look’, or you’re unsure what it involves, I’ve written a separate guide to first looks in general which I suggest reading first so you’re up to speed on what it is before diving into this:

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Deciding whether to have a first look before your City Hall wedding ceremony is very much a personal decision, based on a variety of factors. It tends to suit those that are pretty punctual, because lateness can derail our plans. It also suits those who are looking to have a more traditional wedding day (getting ready photos, private ceremony, reception etc).

But it can also be a lovely touch for even simple civil ceremonies. It can even be an unstaged moment, if you’re not into the tap-the-shoulder-and-turn thing. There are a variety of ways to go about it and also a ton of different locations even within this one building.

Let’s now dive into how to have your first look, where to have this reveal, and more about those factors you should consider to make your choice.

How to have a first look for SF City Hall ceremonies

This will detail the exact mechanics of how first looks work – who does what, and when!

The best way I have found to organize first looks at City Hall is as follows.

  1. Text thread is started in advance, with photographer, bride, groom and possible helper of bride if needed.
  2. Groom arrives at exact preordained meeting spot, at the ordained time.
  3. Photographer to instruct groom to look away from where bride will arrive. He is positioned away and briefed on what will happen when bride arrives. For example, ‘feel free to exaggerate your reactions, don’t hold back emotion, look at the whole outfit, twirl her around’.
  4. Photographer checks in with bride and helper via text/ call to inform them the groom is in position.
  5. No more than 5 minutes after groom’s arrival, bride arrives at the location. Timing is important because if she’s too early, the groom might see her. Too late, and it negatively impacts the planned photo session of the couple.
  6. Bride is briefed by photographer on arrival. She’s instructed which shoulder to tap and what to do.
  7. Photographer gets shots of each partner separately and the slow walk-up is photographed from multiple angles up until bride taps groom on shoulder.
  8. The moment is set up with photographer in best position to capture the actual reveal.
  9. Bride and groom have an organic moment to themselves with no direction.
  10. Romantic photos begin.

Please note, I’m using ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ terminology for ease of explanation, so please excuse my heteronormativity with these terms. We are proud to work with all couples.

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Where to have your first look within the building

Here are a few options when it comes to locations to see each other for the first time in and around this iconic and beautiful building

On the Grand Staircase

Most people’s first idea is to have this grand moment on the Grand Staircase! It’s a lovely idea, but the reality is the staircase is very crowded most of the day. There are likely to be people both on it and visible in the background of shots on the staircase.

Also, it feels pretty exposed being on the staircase once the building fills up. A lot of couples I work with do not want to experience being the ‘center of attention’.

Due to the fact that this is a special, staged moment that requires some time (setting up the groom, waiting for the bride, allowing the moment to unfold), it’s better to organize a plan which will allow more privacy and less stress.

However, there is an exception. If you’re planning your first look right at 8am when the building opens up, it’s possible to plan to do your first look right on the Grand Staircase. Here’s an example of an 8am reveal:

First look on the Grand Staircase of SF City Hall at 8am
First look on the Grand Staircase of SF City Hall at 8am | Photo by Zoe Larkin Photography

Beside the Grand Staircase

So, you may not have booked a 9am ceremony but would still like to obtain first look photos with the Grand Staircase. For this, I recommend opting for right next to the staircase.

Here’s an example:

First look beside the Grand Staircase at SF City Hall
First look beside the Grand Staircase at SF City Hall | Photo by Zoe Larkin Photography

This above photo was taken during a very busy time on a Wednesday afternoon. However, because there aren’t as many areas where bystanders could lurk, it was possible to have our retouching team zap the people that were standing on the staircase without it messing up the photo.

The reason this area works so well is because as soon as you walk in, this is where you’ll find yourself. No complicated route to follow or hoping that you wind up on the correctside. It’s easy to accidentally catch sight of one another in other areas as City Hall is symmetrical north to south. With the nerves and anticipation (and the open layout of the upper floors) it would be easy to find yourself on the wrong side – opposite where your partner is.

With the plan to meet at the bottom of the staircase, there’s no confusion providing you enter through the main door, not the back door!

3rd Floor

The 3rd floor of San Francisco City Hall is the quietest floor in terms of foot traffic and bystanders!

The 1st floor has the entrance to the staircase and it’s where people naturally congregate. The 2nd floor has the Mayor’s Balcony rental area and it’s also where civil ceremony couples for their ceremony. The 4th Floor has private ceremonies and it’s highly sought after due to the incredible light.

The 3rd floor however has none of that and yet is still super pretty! Sure, there may be folks around but it’s probably one of the easier areas to carve out a small space that’s just for you. Here’s an example of a first look there:

first look on 3rd Floor of SF City Hall
First look on 3rd Floor of SF City Hall | Photo by Zoe Larkin Photography

One thing to be aware of is that there are of course two sides to all floors beyond the 1st. A North and a South side. If we have made a plan to meet on the North side, you have to be careful not to get turned around and end up on the South side. Your partner that’s waiting may see you across the way!

The 3rd Floor North Side works great for couples that have booked the 4th Floor North for their ceremony. Why?

When you have your first look here, your guests cannot see you if they’re already situated in the ceremony space. This would work great for couples that are sensitive about not wanting to be seen by wedding guests prior to the ceremony but would still like a moment to connect and center themselves in each other.

North Light Court (1st Floor)

This couple chose to have their first look in this artsy space – the North Light Court. Examples of photos here:

This area is situated on the right-hand side as soon as you enter the main atrium. It’s super duper quiet and not used for anything most of the time! 

I love the way the art on the walls looked in the background – definite art gallery vibes. And how the colors contrasted with their outfits! I also particularly liked how the family was able to witness this sweet moment too, but seated (not getting too close and interfering with the shots, which we photographers can be a little particular about!)

Artwork changes here regularly. I think this spot works best as a back-up in case there are simply too many people on the Grand Staircase and you don’t want to wait for a gap.

This couple also brings me onto the subject of non-traditional first looks. No, you don’t need to tap on the shoulder. You can go back-to-back and turn around at the same time. Love how this worked!

Opposite the front of City Hall

The front door of the building (Polk Side) is constantly being used for people entering, exiting and taking photos. Therefore, I recommend crossing the street so you avoid the flow of people and also are able to get more of the City Hall building in your photos (lighting permitting).

Here’s what it looks like to have a first look near the trees (this was during the afternoon, so ensured the couple had the sun at their backs):

First look opposite the front of City Hall
First look opposite the front of City Hall | Photo by Zoe Larkin Photography

There’s that a line of trees that many people find very attractive, myself included. Even when they lose their leaves in the winter, the rows of London Plane trees is still striking.

Another advantage of doing your first look here is the shade it provides. A lifesaver on sunny days!

I always recommend doing outdoor photos on your SF City Hall wedding day, so this helps accomplish that goal! It has more of a nature vibe with the trees.

Casual, candid first look as you pull up outside City Hall

For a really casual vibe, you don’t have to have a staged first look at all. Some couples didn’t want the whole ‘tap on the shoulder and act surprised’ thing, as one bride put it. I call this an ‘un-first look’.

I’ve included a couple of examples of this below as it’s the hardest to try to visualize!:

casual first look on polk St
Casual first look on Polk St (Dr. Carlton B Goodlett Pl) | Photo by Zoe Larkin Photography
candid first look photography at wedding
A candid first look as bride emerges from Uber outside SF City Hall | Photo by Zoe Larkin Photography

Rather, some couples want a more natural moment of the bride arriving. Typically she’s dropped off by Uber on Polk Street. I photograph her exiting the car, as well as the groom’s face when he sees her.

I personally love this approach because it feels so fresh and modern. It leans into the urban vibe which is the reality of getting married in a gritty area of downtown San Francisco!

I’m there simply to capture the organic moments of the day, not to stage or direct. Nothing choreographed about it! This is where a photojournalistic wedding photographer really shines:

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Much of our time at City Hall is not candid in nature (with the exception of the ceremony). Therefore, it’s nice to have some part of the experience that’s unforced and left to happenstance.

I love this one too because it might include other family members if they are all present and waiting! Rather than being an exclusive moment between bride and groom, it can be more like a welcoming party. Expect a fun or emotional moment with your entire crew! We make sure to capture it all.

Memorial Court (behind City Hall)

This is one of my favorite places to take photos as it has it all – a wonderful view of City Hall, the same beautiful trees, pretty gateposts, manicured hedges and even a beautiful blue door.

Here’s what a first look at Memorial Court looks like:

First look at Memorial Court,
First look at Memorial Court, to the back of SF City Hall | Photo by Zoe Larkin Photography

Also, it’s super quiet! It’s close to City Hall – about a 5–7-minute walk from the front door, given heels and dresses! Yet I’ve never run into another couple taking photos here. It’s also not usually a spot where the unhoused residents of SF hang out.

Please be aware that if you’d like to do photos here, it’s an extra half-hour needed. The only exception is if you’re eloping with NO GUESTS. In that case so we can reallocate time usually spent doing the formal groupings. Bear in mind, that’s for couples that don’t mind getting their hustle on!

There is a certain protocol I prefer to follow for first looks here. This is simply because it’s easy to get confused and enter the park from the wrong side.

The side where I meet couples is the Franklin & Fulton side, NOT the Van Ness side. The Van Ness side is close to City Hall, the Franklin & Fulton side is further away. That’s where we want to meet so we can get more of City Hall into the photos

You can navigate to Franklin & Fulton Street or Inn at the Opera on Google Maps. Then cross the main street – Franklin. The meeting place / first look location is between the large blue gateposts. You’ll see them as soon as you set foot in the park.

Morning is the best time of day to do a first look because you’ll get photos like these! For results like the ones you see on my Instagram, you’ll want to be there before 11am. From this location, the sun is behind City Hall. You’ll get that warm glow emanating from behind you.

Below is a reel that shows a little more of Memorial Court and early-morning romantic shots:

The need for flexibility and a ‘roll with it’ attitude

Due to how busy the building is, however, you should always be prepared to pivot your plans. There are dozens of couples and their guests in the building at any one time, all of whom are trying to have a relaxed wedding day and obtain beautiful photos.

There is only one way to completely control proceedings including which areas can be utilized – and that is by booking the entire building which is possible on Saturday mornings for the 2-hour bookings.

If you’d like to find out more about that option, check out my guide linked below!

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Important factors to consider when deciding if a first look at SF City Hall is for you

As you can probably tell, pulling off a City Hall first look involves some logistics.  Yet, with good timing and punctuality, the process can be smooth and efficient.

My advice to you: only attempt a first look only if you both have a strong record of punctuality. Bear in mind there’ll be added wedding day stress and preparations. It may not be something you’ve done before, but only you know yourselves!

Some risks and pitfalls to avoid

  • Lateness. With both partners arriving separately, it doubles the chances of tardiness. Punctuality is crucial for your City Hall wedding as we only have 2 hours together (for the base package). Though it’s beyond my control, lateness from one or both partners can considerably impact your level of stress. It can ultimately affect the quality and range of photos delivered.
  • Connected to this – not correctly estimating external factors such as hair and makeup appointments, unfamiliar locations, how long it takes to put on a wedding dress and accessories, accommodation arrangements, or transportation reliance.
  • Not checking your phone. The logistics executed day-of involve being on alert to receive the message that your partner is in position and awaiting your arrival. If you’re not looking at your phone notifications, that’s a big problem.

Here’s one more factor to consider. First looks coincide with a big, traditional wedding. That might look like each partner getting ready in separate hotel rooms. For simple civil ceremonies, things are usually much more low-key. It’s more convenient to get ready together in one place, get your hair and makeup done at your hotel and then leave together for the courthouse.

The last thing I would want is for what should be a joyful moment to cause stress. Therefore, if it doesn’t fit with you as a couple then don’t make it a photo moment that introduced complexity! You can have a totally lovely and memorable moment together that doesn’t necessarily need professional pictures.

How much extra time does a first look moment require?

Starting with a first look technically eats into the time that would have been used for romantics.

The romantic session takes 45 minutes as per previous galleries. Sure, you can do shorter than that, but you may miss out on certain key areas and will not be getting the standard, full session time. For example, I prioritize the Grand Staircase and 4th Floor. However, without sufficient time, it might be ALL we do.

As a reminder, the general flow of the day after the first look is > ceremony > group formals > exit photos.

Sample timelines below:

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I want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth when it comes to the romantics. To me, that’s a much bigger priority than first-look photos. The romantic photos of the two of you in City Hall is the main reason you hire a photographer.

However, if you have to want to stick to the 2-hour base package it may be possible, but with caveats. First, with the time that is taken from our romantics session, you will be missing out on certain floors, areas of the building, or poses – all of which take time.

Are you confident of the punctuality of both partners? If someone is late, that impacts the plan even more. If you are both late, that could be catastrophic for your photos, and I’ve seen it happen!

If you tend to run late, dislike rushing around, or don’t want to feel overstimulated, I highly recommend adding on time. That could be an extra half-hour (usually that’s fine) or a full hour. It serves as a buffer and provides additional opportunities for capturing magical moments.

That extra time won’t go to waste – we can always use it for extra post-ceremony shots! We can hit other areas of the building post-ceremony that were not obtained earlier. Or, my personal favorite, use it for more outdoor shots on and around the exit steps. Outdoor photos are such a great way to spend time, because as beautiful as the building is, nothing in the world beats natural light for flattering, stunning photos where you look your best.

Plus, with the extra time, you’ll get some breathing room if you need some time away from the camera.

For first looks within City Hall, an extra half-hour is advised if you do not want to compromise your time already planned out for romantics, or to gain any of the benefits mentioned above.

Note: If you choose Memorial Court as your first look location, this REQUIRES an extra half-hour to be booked. We will do the first look (allow 5 – 10 mins), take photos around the various pretty areas (15 mins), then walk to City Hall (5 – 10 mins). Of course, a full hour will yield even better results.

To wrap up

I’ve given you the full guide to deciding if a first look at City Hall is right for you.

Perhaps because it can be logistically complex to get ready and arrive separately, the vast majority of my City Hall couples simply arrive together.

It is undoubtedly a beautiful option to have photos of the moment you see each other for the first time. There is a strong time-based element to consider that doesn’t suit everyone. 

Don’t let this discourage you – San Francisco City Hall first looks can be absolutely stunning! It can add a touch of ‘big wedding day’ elegance and tradition, particularly applicable to those having larger private ceremonies. 

My role is to educate and provide a comprehensive outlook so you can make informed decisions. Remember that each couple’s experience is unique – embrace the authenticity of your special day!

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how to have first look at sf city hall
Complete guide to first look at San Francisco City Hall wedding by Zoe Larkin Photography

Zoe Larkin

I’m Zoe, a wedding photographer based in San Francisco! My style is candid, capturing authentic moments for my couples all over the Bay Area and Northern California. Creating content is my passion! Follow along the blog and Insta!

how to have first look at san Francisco city hall wedding ceremony

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A wedding day ‘first look’ at San Francisco City Hall? Pros, cons and how to!

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